Updated at 1:35 p.m. ET
(AP) BEIJING - The blind Chinese activist at the center of a six-day diplomatic tussle between the U.S. and China said he fears for his family's lives and wants to leave China, hours after American officials announced an agreement with Beijing that was to guarantee his safety.
Chen Guangcheng escaped from illegal house arrest and other mistreatment in his rural town, placing himself under the protection of U.S. diplomats last week. On Wednesday, after six days holed up inside the American embassy, he emerged and was taken to a nearby hospital. U.S. officials said they had extracted from the Chinese government a promise that Chen would reunite with his family and be allowed to start a new life in a university town.
Hours later, however, a shaken Chen told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his hospital room that U.S. officials told him the Chinese authorities would have sent his family back to his home province if he remained inside the embassy. He added that, at one point, the U.S. officials told him his wife would have been beaten to death.
"I think we'd like to rest in a place outside of China," Chen said, appealing again for help from U.S. officials. "Help my family and me leave safely."
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement that no U.S. official spoke to Chen about physical or legal threats to his wife and children. Nor did the Chinese relay any such threats to American diplomats, she said. She did confirm that the Chinese intended to return his family to their home province of Shandong, where they had been detained illegally and beaten by local officials angry over Chen's campaigns to expose forced abortions, and that they would lose any chance of being reunited.
"At every opportunity, he expressed his desire to stay in China, reunify with his family, continue his education and work for reform in his country," Nuland said. "All our diplomacy was directed at putting him in the best possible position to achieve his objectives."
A close friend of Chen's said Chinese officials forced Chen to choose between going into exile alone or staying in China with his family. Beijing activist Zeng Jinyan said she spoke by phone with Chen and his wife while he was in the hospital. Chen told her that his wife's life had been threatened, she said.
"He said what he wanted was totally different but because no one can protect his wife and children" he had to accept, Zeng said via Skype.
The differing accounts could not be immediately reconciled. But the turn in Chen's fate comes after nearly seven years of prison, house arrest and abusive treatment of him and his family members by local officials.
Chen's flight into the protection of U.S. diplomats in Beijing last week had created a delicate diplomatic crisis for Washington and Beijing. It also threatened to derail annual U.S.-China strategic talks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton starting Thursday.
Under the agreement that ended the fraught, behind-the-scenes standoff, U.S. officials said China agreed to let Chen and his family be relocated to a safe place in China where he could study at university, and that his treatment by local officials would be investigated.
Chen, 40, said he never asked to leave China or for asylum in the U.S. and said American officials reassured him they would accompany him out of the embassy. At the hospital, Chen was reunited with his wife, his daughter and a son he hasn't seen in at least two years. But after they got to his room in Chaoyang Hospital, he said no U.S. officials stayed behind and that the family is now scared and wants to leave the country.
"The embassy told me that they would have someone accompany me the whole time," he said. "But today when I got to the ward, I found that there was not a single embassy official here, and so I was very unsatisfied. I felt they did not tell me the truth on this issue."
He also took issue with another facet of the U.S. version of his departure that on his way to the hospital Clinton called him and he told her in halting English "I want to kiss you."
"I told Clinton that I want to see her now. I said" he said speaking in Chinese. Then switching to English he said, "I want to see you now."
Chen had become an international symbol for human dignity after running afoul of local government officials for exposing forced abortions carried out as part of China's one-child policy. He served four years in prison on what supporters said were fabricated charges and was then kept under house arrest with his wife, daughter and mother, with the adults often being roughed by officials and his daughter searched and harassed.